On Survival and Happiness (Maslow’s Needs)


From “The Aviator”:  Mrs. Hepburn says, “We don’t care about money here.”   To which Howard Hughes replies, “That’s because you’ve always had it.  Some of us choose to earn our money.”

Howard Hughes' "Spruce Goose"

Howard Hughes’ “Spruce Goose”

In his 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation,”  Abraham Maslow released a motivational theory which is now commonly referred to as Maslow’s hierarchy.  In short, Maslow theorized that people fulfill their needs in the following way.


Maslow’s Hierarchy (diagram from Wikipedia)

Before a higher level need is fulfilled, the lower level needs must be met (the lowest needs are physiological, the highest self-actualization).  So, physiological needs are fulfilled before safety needs. which must be fulfilled before love/belonging needs, etc.  There are gray areas and exceptions of course (people can jump to fulfilling “higher” needs before fulfilling lower [maybe I’ll have more on that later]), but this is the general idea by which humans find happiness.  According to the Maslow’s Hierarchy then, it would be difficult to worry about your purpose or meaning in the world if you were plotting how to obtain your next meal.

One could argue then, that it was precisely Siddhartha’s (The Buddha) wealth, safety, and love around him that triggered his dissatisfaction (see his story here).  If he were busy surviving–hunting for food, building shelter, watching out for predators, strategizing when it would be a good time to safely sleep, etc.–he may not have felt the dissatisfaction (Dukkha) of not fulfilling the next level of needs.  Moreover, if he were safe, yet lonely (vis–à–vis love/belonging needs), he may have merely yearned for companionship.   As it turns out, many of his lower level needs were satisfied, so he was on to the next need, probably the self-esteem needs, then on to self-actualization…humans are always grasping, as he himself would later find out.

So looking at “The Aviator” quote above:  in essence, Howard Hughes’ reply to Katherine Hepburn’s mother represents the fact that they were working on different levels of needs.  Both, of course were pursuing happiness but each was pursuing in their own complex way.  In my opinion, Hughes was the wiser one because of his experience.  If Mrs. Hepburn were open to enlightenment, she would have realized that her wealth was not a given, and indeed a luxury that could be gone.  Undoubtedly, each person experienced Dukkha because that is what we do.  If you know how Hughes ended up, you know that he had his suffering, too.  He never did quite escape Samsara.

We are all human, after all.